The Karpman Drama Triangle
To write on this subject, I did some research on the internet and to my luck, I found a very well written, very didactic and instructive text about how toxic can be the relationships between people. The text was written by Katia Ricardi de Abreu, graduated in Psychology from PUCCAMP, clinical specialist in Transactional Analysis by ALAT and UNAT–Brazil, a business consultant, speaker and writer. I took all of the text and just to differentiate, I wrote my comments in italics and in blue color. http://katiaricardideabreu.blogspot.com.br
Understanding the roles
Transactional Analysis teaches how to understand the toxic relations between people. Eric Berne classified the types of unhealthy standard procedures on three roles: Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim. Karpman, disciple of Berne, created a diagram to understand and simply visualize this dynamic of interpersonal relationships, which is the Drama Triangle and received the Eric Berne Award for this valuable contribution to the theory of Transactional Analysis. First we have to differentiate the roles of Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim from the same roles of real life. An authentic Rescuer can be for example, a nurse or a doctor who saves a life. An authentic Persecutor can be the cop who chases a villain. And an authentic victim may be a person who was assaulted by the villain.
In Karpman Drama Triangle, these papers are used in a representative manner, to understand toxic relationships between people, distorted communications that lead to conflict, the so-called psychological games. Psychological games occur when communication is not direct, but full of hidden messages.
To better understand how and under what circumstances Psychological Games occur, is appropriate that the reader knows the concept of “Ego States” also by Eric Berne. For this see my article: “GAMES PEOPLE PLAY“
The Rescuer then, is one that has adopted as basic existential position to feel superior to other people and to do so, he needs to help them when they are not asking or needing help. Can be understood as overprotection. An example is when a person does something to another, not by caring or efficiency, but, in a subliminal way, to show that he can do it better and to charge something later in return. Because every Rescuer is a potential Persecutor.
A person who is extremely helpful, always offering to help, even when he is not asked anything, is also an accomplished player, be it the employee or the employer. He will always throw in your face or the face of anyone, you should help more, offer spontaneously, and even guess the needs of other and always be ready to help them. This is an extremely unhealthy behavior very common in people who like to victimize themselves, being poor things. Their position in the drama triangle is, at the same time, the Victim (complain for not having their expectations met), Persecutor (create embarrassment to the other by claiming their lack of initiative) and also Rescuer, because in order to collect or complain, they usually help without being asked first.
The Persecutor is the one that charges vehemently, critical and in an authoritative manner, much more than necessary. The extreme of this is called moral harassment and in Brazil, is a matter that is attracting the interest of professionals. People who are slaughtered daily, persecuted to the point of damaging their physical health, given the frequency and intensity of a relationship with this standard, are reacting in order to uphold through communication or through common law. The existential position of the Persecutor is also generally superior to the others, but can also occur in this position be just the facade. That is, in a deep level, the Persecutor feels so inferior that he needs to do by upper playing the role of Persecutor. See more about “Persecutor” in “EMOTIONAL AND PSYCHIC VIOLENCE“
The big problem of habitual Trackers is that they are self referenced, ie, take themselves as ideal reference behavior and obviously think that everyone around them should behave according to this reference. When someone does not behave this way, for spontaneity or conscious avoidance, they tend to get angry. And they try in all ways to disqualify people who do not follow the pattern. Take advantage of glitches of the colleagues (or employees) to sabotage them and thus create embarrassment before other colleagues making clear with this, that if the employee or colleague would behave within the standard ‘reference, this would not happen to him. They love preaching moral lessons in the others. When they call the colleague (or employee) to talk, their conversation often begins with one of these phrases: “YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THAT…” or “YOU SHOULD LEARN THIS…” – It is always the others who need to understand or learn something. It is amazing how these people have a fondness for themselves as the “bearers of truth.” Only they know things, only they are educated, only they are life experienced, anyway … only they are all. They usually play the role of Persecutor, but when confronted, immediately exchange their role, moving to the Victim and accuse heckler of being a smartass, the most experienced, the nerd, etc. And usually do so in a sarcastic or mocking tone. Another insidious way that usually Persecutor often uses is the ‘Concept of Zero Time‘, ie the concept that the time to perform certain tasks simply does not exist. He delivers two or three tasks at the same time for an employee, but calculates the time required to perform only one and then he charges the employees, wife or anyone else in a ruthless and aggressive form why certain tasks have not yet been fulfilled. And never accept excuses. Incidentally, the Persecutor is one of the hardest people to keep a dialogue with. They are always right. And before the unlikely event of another (the victim) is right, the Persecutor disqualifies him quickly with just one question: “You came here to discuss why?” – Or so say jokingly: “There you go with your theories pierced!” – The most difficult task for any sensible person is trying to convince the Persecutor that he is a sick person with a psychic disease and who needs help. If you try it, you can be sure that will be triggered World War III just because you tried.
The position of Victim is one where the person has never done anything to deserve anything. He does not take responsibility for their actions. He did so because the other did so. If he misses, will always seek a justification on the other. When people talk about him, usually always put the word poor in mid-sentence: “a wench, poor soul, has no mouth for nothing…“. And so the victim protects itself using a cane for not being called to think and act independently or to answer for their acts.
Do you know one employee who works more than others, that is after hours, assuming tasks that others do not always agree, which is very helpful, always offering to do what others do not, or even making by their own initiative tasks that were not requested and that would not normally be done by other employees? … Yeah … that employee is not always a good employee, most of the time he is an accomplished player of mind games. He creates situations that make other employees feel embarrassed or guilty for not having done a certain task or for not having taken the initiative. He is at the same time playing the role of Rescuer (he is saving the boss), in the role of Victim (subliminally passing a message to customers of the establishment that the employer is overwhelming) and also in the role of Persecutor (creates embarrassment and guilt in colleagues).
Predominant ego states
The Persecutor’s State of Ego is ‘Critical Parent‘, the Rescuer’s state of ego is ‘Nurturing Parent‘ and the Victim’s state of ego is ‘Adapted (conforming) Child‘, ie, are the archetypal figures of Father, Mother and little child in the strict sense of the words. Note that there is no state of Ego ‘Adult’ in this environment. No person processes information form a factually and realistic point of view, only subjectively. In practice, no person behaves in fact as an Adult, and in the point of view of the Persecutor or the Rescuer, all those around them, Either are unprotected and innocent children or are rebellious and messy children. Some need protection and others need ear pulling. The Rescuer often start from the premise that the ‘Victim’ is an unprotected and fragile child who needs help even if not asking, even if the alleged victim is not necessarily in the role of victim, ie, the Rescuers ‘creates’ their own victims to meet their own needs to be superior to the others. About the Persecutor? He sees a potential victim in any person: a delivery of goods that commits a small gaffe, an employee who forgets something, a friend who says something he does not want to hear, the wife who not readied the lunch in time … Anyway, the Persecutors also ‘create‘ their own victims. And any reason serves: Either a lamp that was lit or a door that was forgotten opened, the fact is that there will always be reasons for the Persecutor comes into action. So we can deduce that the person in the role of Victim, is not always by its own choice, conscious or unconscious. Using a well-trivial expression, in some cases the victim may even be someone who ‘was made a fool’, because a having sincere desire to try to improve the environment, based on knowledge and factual examples, eventually triggered the wrath of those who are long in the Drama Triangle. Unfortunately, the person who is on the outside of the Drama Triangle, most often, finds as its best existential option, remain in his ‘Square’ and let the triangle turns into a ‘Circle’. A Vicious Circle of games where the hidden psychological and malicious communications will generate more and more conflicts and conflicts will predominate. Only left to an outsider, watching saddened how often the Triangle becomes into a true ‘Circus’ of offending, insulting, shouting, emotional aggression and in some cases, even physical aggression.
People who are inside the Triangle, especially when in the role of Persecutor, not having to take responsibility for their actions, and also not recognize that they are bearers of a psychopath, usually disqualify those who comes with the legitimate aim to help or clarify things, treating them like children, putting them forcibly in the State of Ego ‘child’, because so they need not take seriously the advice or guidance, after all, is a child who is speaking, not an adult. For this, they use the phrases in a sarcastic or mocking tone, like “ihh, there you go again with your pierced theories” – or, preach a moral lesson in the subject, but also placing it in the State of ego ‘Child’: “You’re studying hard, it is making you sick,” or “you’re seeing these things on the Internet, this will end up driving you nuts.” Realize, dear reader, that the goal of the Persecutor is taking the focus off the main subject and put the focus on the person who is talking about the issue. Instead of debating the issue, debate is about the person, denigrating it, belittling it, embarrassing it, ridiculing it. So, (Persecutor) do not need to change, do not need to improve, do not need to recognize that something needs to be discussed, understood and improved. Do not even need to take seriously the person talking, after all, who is talking? A child? A crazy? A neurotic? This is the modus operandi of the Persecutor. That’s the way he avoids becoming aware that he is playing the role of Persecutor. And the chase continues …
The three positions were placed by Karpman at the vertices of an inverted triangle, with two-way arrows to indicate that people change their position in the triangle, but may remain in a basic position, most of the time. Persecutor left, Rescuer right and Victim in the lower vertex of the triangle. The psychological game happens when the person who is in a position of the Triangle, changes its position, confusing the listener. The final addition is always a feeling of malaise, a fight, an uproar. For example, the Rescuer gets tired of rescuing and, in a given day, charges exaggerated and aggressively, then moving himself to position Persecutor. Then, the same person can enter the Victim position, and say in a melodramatic way that “nobody pities me”, “everybody exploit me”, “nobody is interested in doing anything to me”, when it is not real.
One of the direct consequences of these pathologies is the high turnover of staff in some companies. Normally, it is the owner or boss which is the main ill, but is unaware of it. As the toxic environment is normal for him, he usually accepts employees that ‘make the game‘. Law of Attraction. Usually the role of the boss is the Persecutor and the majority of his employees is the Victim. But as always there is exchange of roles, there will always be an employee (or boss‘s wife) that reverses its role to Rescuer and will try to defend this or that. I do not think I need to keep explaining, it is obvious that this highly toxic environment is always boiling. There will always be someone asking the bills or being fired. And for those who stay in the company, the prevailing atmosphere is one of fear and embarrassment. Interestingly, some companies survive for years with internally extremely toxic environments. And some workers adapt so well to this environment, which remain long years in the company. Each employer has employees who deserves to have, and by reciprocity, each employee has the boss he deserves to have.
And why do people play or why people enter the Karpman Drama Triangle? There are several reasons. The main one is: to avoid intimacy. Ie, people who do not develop their potential to love get scared at the prospect of being in front of people who do not hide cards up his sleeve, which can be a rich exchange of cuddles, an authentic and profound friendship. That scares them for being a form of relationship that was not internalized, was not learned. They are people who have learned the love of trading, bargaining and feel vulnerable in the face of a proposed communication where there is no traps. They do not believe this to happen, due to their experiences, their history, their introjected messages very early in life.
Many people (if not most) have been created in an unhealthy family environment, living daily with these types of toxic behaviors, so for those people it is perfectly normal. The Drama Triangle is present in all human relationships then it is obvious that people have learned from very small to adapt to roles within the triangle. They are unaware psychopaths, have no idea of the harm they do (to themselves and others). The great tragedy is that none of us gets emotional education, so even ‘feeling’ that something is wrong, we carry forth to future generations what we learned in family life, since we had no other reference. The school and academic education does not prepare us to have healthy relationships. In fact, schools are also highly toxic environments in emotionally and psychic sights. Doubt it? So try to remember how were your teachers and principals of schools where you studied. Not to mention many of your colleagues.
Yes it is possible get out of it!
Who entered the Drama Triangle can and should get out of it, if one wants to live in peace and have quality in their interpersonal relationships. Berne and Karpman teach how. Developing a direct communication, speaking the language of feelings intelligently is the way. This means not playing. Many can at least most of the time. Generally, when there is a period of emotional fragility, the person can enter a game, falling in the Triangle, but if it becomes aware, know leave quickly and rescue the healthy communication, returning to the existential position of well-being.
It is very difficult, particularly if you live every day in an environment with a high level of toxicity, but not impossible. The main weapon is knowledge. Self knowledge. First, you must identify yourself in harmful behaviors and self correct. Once you understand how harmful relationships work, you can more easily defend yourself and help others combat their harmful behaviors. Do not kid yourself: no one will have absolutely any change in behavior just because you want to or because someone ‘prayed’ for the person. The only way to resolve the conflicts that arise due to the toxicity of the environment is ‘aware‘, ie become conscious of the hidden or subliminal causes that give rise to conflicts. Studying is the main tool.
Rescuer, go have fun!
Who is in the position of Rescuer, can learn to get out of it by no more helping people who ask not to be helped, believing in the ability of people to exist autonomously and believing that you can be loved for what you are and not just what you do for people . I always say to Rescuers: “go have fun“, “take care of you.”
Persecutor be less critical!
To exit the Persecutor position, the person can use their time and energy to consider all people and not just their flaws or errors. You can also find a way to feel important, you can build your existence of glory without necessity of destroying what has been built. You can exercise your power without humiliate or denigrate the qualities of others. You can point out errors instead of criticizing harshly.
Victim, drop the crutches and walk!
To exit the position of victim, the person can exercise its logical thinking. How can I take care of myself? What can I do for me? How can I fix it myself? Give up having canes, give up establishing permanent symbiosis with people who are always ready to support your shortcomings and seek to strengthen your weaknesses, is the way.
Give up the war and make love!
The Karpman Drama Triangle, therefore, shows the pathology of interpersonal relations. Wear it causes in relationships result is guaranteed, and may come up with something called painful end. According to Eric Berne, healthy relationships are those where people meet one another to share what they are in an atmosphere of spontaneity, creativity and autonomy. Still according to him, the intimacy is the riskiest and most rewarding form of human relationship. Who does not practice it, will play psychological games, the only negative form of structuring time to fill its battery with negative stimuli, since it lacks the positive. And Psychological Games guarantee this supply. The most serious of them is called war. I have dedicated most of my life working against the war that is established in the heart of the people that, hurt, come to me because one day came and still not managed to get out of the Drama Triangle. I think so, I’m doing my part to make this world better.
My thanks to Psychologist Katia Ricardi de Abreu, by having promptly authorized the use of her text for this article.